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On air quality, Anchorage and Fairbanks have totally different results

Suzanna Caldwell
Fog and smog envelopes Fairbanks during a cold winter morning. alaskanent / flickr

Alaska is known for its majestic views and sprawling beauty, but the largest state contains cities at opposite sides of the air-quality spectrum.

Sometimes in-state rivals, Anchorage and Fairbanks were cities to either emulate or avoid, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2013 report.

Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, has the 14th-cleanest air quality in the nation, based on particle pollution readings. Anchorage was behind such smaller towns as Cheyenne, Wyo. (ranked first) and St. George, Utah and Santa Fe, NM (tied for second).

The report notes that the Anchorage's annual average of 6.2 micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter is substantially lower than other large U.S. cities.

Matthew Stichick, an environmental engineer with the Municipality of Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services wasn't surprised to hear that Anchorage fared well in the American Lung Association's assessment. While the city does have seasonal blips when air quality is slightly poorer (break-up and freeze-up, as well as frigid days when more people burn wood), Anchorage has historically had healthy air.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that we have a small population density and not a whole lot of industry," in Anchorage, he said. "There are a lot fewer pollutants being emitted in the city."

Fairbanks fared far differently. Despite being Alaska's second largest city, Fairbanks recorded some of the worst air quality in the nation: only 13 cities have dirtier air, according to the report. Only eight cities in America suffer from more short-term air pollution.

It's a well-known and serious health crisis the Fairbanks North Star Borough is struggling to clean up. High energy prices strangle the region and some residents have returned to burning wood for home heat. The smoke is linked to asthma, heart attacks, strokes and premature death. Even short-term exposure can be dangerous for human health.

Yet there may be reason to breathe easier. Last month, the Alaska Legislature approved House Bill 4, aimed at delivering a cleaner source of heat for the region's residents. Natural gas has been touted as a “silver bullet” to the Interior's energy woes. The bill still needs Gov. Sean Parnell’s signature, and even if it becomes law, years will pass before a line is built and gas starts flowing.

Bakersfield, Calif., was cited for the worst overall air pollution in the country, followed by fellow California cities Merced and Fresno. All three are in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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